Cooperative Inquiry in Action Research


John Heron is a collaborator as well as a friendly critic of Peter Reason (he set up the New Paradigm Research Group in London in 1978 with Reason and John Rowan). He is also a prolific writer and practitioner in his own right. While Heron’s work has much in common with the work already discussed, Heron’s overall emphasis on the larger processes of research and on questions of validity makes it valuable for us to treat his work here on its own.

His major book on these topics is Co-Operative Inquiry: Research Into the Human Condition (Heron, 1996), a comprehensive development of an episte­mology and methodology for AR. The book begins by disavowing the desire to create yet another orthodoxy. Heron actively seeks to map his approach onto others, including qualitative inquiry in general, and promises to explore the paradigm of inquiry underlying his approach and compare it with others. He tries to live up to these promises, taking an inviting and nonparochial approach to a complex subject.

In cooperative inquiry, the point of departure is participative reality, by which Heron (1996) refers to the immanence of mind in nature (reminiscent of Bateson, 1979) and the necessarily cogenerative quality of human knowing. What sets Heron’s treatment apart is his distinction between participative real­ity as an epistemological question and the equaUy important and powerful political (and ethical) values of participation and human development. These are treated as two dimensions. He does not try to derive one from the other, as is so often done. “The democratization of research management is as much a human rights issue as the democratization of government at national and local levels” (1996, p. 21).

His argument for cooperative inquiry links these two meanings of partici­pation, and he systematically defends it against other approaches that he consid­ers more limited. He uses the distinctions among experiential, presentational, practical, and propositional knowing throughout and to good effect; as a good action researcher, he begins the process with experiential knowing.

Heron also faces the issues of truth and validity squarely, rather than argu­ing that doing good excuses any methodological or epistemological sloppiness. Heron is a strong believer in the warrant for action view of knowledge. Heron works through the various ways inquiry processes are begun, their phases, and the variety of things that can happen at different points. Though no solu­tion is offered to the dilemmas of coauthorship, Heron confronts these issues forthrightly.

Heron is particularly attentive to issues of validity, and he makes impor­tant contributions to the broader discussion of AR. He connects inquiry cycles, reflection, action, and other elements in the process to an overall view of what constitutes validity in this kind of work. We believe this still stands as the most comprehensive statement of an approach to validity found in the AR litera­tures. Among the validity procedures Heron advocates are research cycling, balancing divergence and convergence in the process, and elements of reflec­tion. The discussion on validity has much in common with the arguments pre­sented in Chapter 4. As always in AR, the basis for making claims for validity is whether they warrant action or create workable solutions.

Having taken us this long way, Heron (1996) then returns to the larger worldview that guides cooperative inquiry. He restates his commitment to what he calls “empiricism,” but he does so subversively by insisting that empiricism means not prejudging the content of experience. Heron effectively takes on the empiricists in their lair by arguing that their own views of what is empirical are completely inadequate. He closes the work by showing how cooperative inquiry better addresses nearly all the conceptual, empirical, and political dilemmas of conventional social research.


Heron’s emphasis on validity is taken up by Bradbury and Reason in the concluding chapter of the Handbook of Action Research (Bradbury & Reason, 2001 ), an interesting choice and one that shows that Heron’s argument for the importance of taking on the question of validity in AR has gained traction. Rather than arguing that doing research that is ethically good somehow auto­matically produces “good” research, it is now clear that we must make defensi­ble arguments regarding the quality and validity of our work.

Bradbury and Reason review the multiple meanings of validity and how deeply unacceptable to AR it would be to accept the postmodern attempt at the destruction of all standards of validation and meaning. They link questions of validity to questions of quality because without judgments of what is good quality, what is valid work is impossible to determine. But goodness depends very much on the goals of the inquiry. Thus the value and “worthwhileness” of the work are key elements in validity judgments.

In AR, validity, like everything else, is dynamic, it is processual. For each kind of process and each kind of knowledge deployed, there are different ways of dealing with validity. Bradbury and Reason close the essay with a good synthetic illustration that we reproduce here:

Issues as choice-points and questions for quality in action research

Is the action research:

Explicit in developing a praxis of relational-participation?

Guided by reflexive concern for practical outcomes?

Inclusive of a plurality of knowing?

Ensuring conceptual-theoretical integrity?

Embracing ways of knowing beyond the intellect?

Intentionally choosing appropriate research methods?

Worthy of the term significant?

Emerging toward a new and enduring infrastructure?

(Bradbury & Reason, 2001, p. 454)

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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